Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More "Fingers of Fear"

A reader was kind enough to send me this bit of background on Fingers of Fear:

"As you mention in your review, the book's enduring semi-popularity is a bit of a phenomenon--actually the result of a few overlapping phenomena. In 1937, no one published gothic horror in hardback. It was always consigned to pulps. But Nicolson had some clout because his "Canterbury Tales" had sold well not only to academic institutions but to casual readers. As a result, Covici agreed to publish "Fingers." It was not a big seller, but was noticed instantly as an oddity--a hardbound gothic horror novel in the late '30s. The story was pretty good, and the writing literate, so it developed an immediate cult following. As gothic romance grew in popularity, so did the reputation of "Fingers." This is where phenomena begin to overlap. Horror and science fiction movies enjoyed a rebirth of popularity with the purchase of the rights to the old Universal catalogue by Shock Theater. The popularity increased when Forrest Ackerman launched "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine. Television looked for new ways to get in on the trend, and soon "Dark Shadows" was hatched. Its creators were familiar with "Fingers of Fear." Then, when "Dark Shadows" became a hit, publishing houses looked for a way to cash in on the new popularity of gothic romance mixed with horror. Needless to say, one of the first things they did was reissue "Fingers of Fear" as a paperback. So the original book, published by chance almost as a favor to Nicolson, ended up helping to inspire "Dark Shadows," then was reissued directly as a result of "Dark Shadows." The cult following grew, and eventually Midnight House issued the celebratory hardbound reprint."

He was also kind enough to send me a copy of the original dust cover (see above).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

FINGERS OF FEAR by John U. Nicolson

At the rate I'm going, I'll have to change the name of this blog to KEWPP ( KEW's Pen Pals). What started as a running commentary on the wild Operator 5 novels of the 1930's has transformed into a reading journal of Karl Wagner's "Best" list. I even have dreams of dedicated an entire bookshelf to KEW's essential list and calling it "The Karl Edward Wagner Memorial Library".
OK, I'd have to put some Kane books on their too. But I digress....
Fingers of Fear was #10 on KEW's 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels list. As I open the pages of my old copy of Twilight Zone Magazine, this is what he said:

"This one has it all: lycanthropy, vampirism, family curse, patricide, incest, infanticide, hauntings, the works. Supposedly it was marketed as straight detective fiction. Must have freaked out the Agatha Christie fans."

What he should've added is that the most of the action in the book takes place during one night.
As always, the back story on these books is a thrill in and of itself. Fingers of Fear was first published in 1937,when the Great Depression was in full throttle and while the Nazis and communists were squaring off over Europe. In other words, it was not a fun time to be an educated man. From what I have been able to find out about the author John Nicolson, he was a scholar of medieval literature. His translation of The Canterbury Tales into modern English is one of the most popular versions available. How he came to write a book which ranks with the best of the shudder pulps is a story yet to be told.
Another story yet to be told would involve how this book was reprinted as a paperback gothic (July, 1966), complete with the obligatory cover painting of a woman fleeing from a dark mansion. And you just have to love the blurb on said cover:
"Beautiful Gray Ormesby must save her love and her life in the cursed house!".
For a 60's paperback, it didn't come cheap. But it was still less expensive than the more recent Midnight House reprint. As always, I go with the cheaper reading copy since I'm not a collector of first editions, even if the newer reprint did have an essay on Nicolson. I'm sure the intro in the newer edition would've shed more light on Fingers of Fear, but I really wasn't very impressed with the intro to their reprint of Echo of a Curse, considering the recent revelation about it's author. At least not impressed enough to shell out extra $$$.
Enough background! To the story!
It's June of 1933. Foncy lad Seaverns finds himself jobless, down to his last few cents, divorced from his aspiring Broadway actress wife, and standing outside his old members-only club in New York City. Who should come by? Why his old college chum Ormond Ormsbey. Hearing that Seaverns is desperate, Ormsbey offers him a job at his family home in upstate New York writing a scholarly book on the Elizabethan influence of colonial literature. He is to use a vast inherited library at the family estate. Seaverns can even stay there while he's working on the book and draw a stipend. Why? It seems Ormsbey has inherited a truck load of colonial books and manuscripts from an antiquarian aunt and has to produce this text with 18 months or everything, including a substantial cash sum, will be donated to a historical society. With no other options, Seaverns quickly takes the job and travels to the Ormsbey compound.
At the manor house, Seaverns meets: Ormsbey's wife Agatha, his beautiful sister Gray, the manserveant Hobbs, and Hobb's wife. Ormsbey's invalid aunt Barbara is supposed to live there too, but is sequestered in a private room. Seaverns, who is also the book's narrator, assesses the job and tries to beg it off once he sees the size of the vast collection of books Ormseby's inherited. Ormsbey, however assures Seaverns that he's the man for the job and leaves the estate for his business in New York City.
As soon as Ormond leaves, Seaverns meets a mysterious spectral lady in the library who promptly vanishes. And then, in the course of a 24-hour period he encounters:

*A revelation about Ormsbey's father killing his mother in an insane rage.
*Both the bodies of Ormsbey's mother and father being stashed in secret somewhere on the estate.
*A vision of Gray naked, with blood on her mouth, howling at the moon.
*A secret passage between the various rooms of the mansion.
*An evil twin.
*A dead body in the garage.
*A blackmail attempt.
*Insanity in the Ormsbey family.
*Ormond showing up at the estate with Seaverns recently divorced wife.
*Buried treasure.
But wait, there's more!

To give away the remainder of the plot would be to spoil it for a potential reader. Suffice it to be said this book crams more plot bends in the first 100 pages than you will find in a vintage house sewer system.
Nicolson did know how to write a sentence. Wittiness this description of Gray Ormsbey's fainting spell:

"Her mother would not have been ashamed of such a failing, and her grandmother would have flopped to earth upon far less
provocation than Gray had been given. I think, however, that her grandmother's mother would have been even more ashamed than Gray."

The only real problem I had with Fingers of Fear was the narrator's inability to let the reader know just where the hell he was while in the house. In a complicated space such as the the Ormsbey manor, it is important to know where all the principal characters are in relation to everyone else. I don't know if Nicolson based the manor house on an actual dwelling, but a diagram would have been helpful. Perhaps this would be an excellent task for a future illustrator: a complete lay-out of Ormseby manor.
This is still an excellent and well-crafted novel. I surmise KEW read one of 1966 reprints. Since he was trained as a psychiatrist, I can easily see how a complex story of aristocratic families going crazy would've appealed to him.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Vampires Overhead by Alan Hyder

"Civilization is destroyed again, this time by a bizarre migration of a life-form from outer space. A strange and effective between-the-wars British thriller."

I would very much like to know why KEW chose this book to be on his essential list, but I don't have the particular issue of the old Twilight Zone magazine where he listed it. There are times I wonder how KEW came by these books. Vampires Overhead seems to have been published once, in 1935, then reprinted by Ash Tree Press in 2002. The original fetches prices in the thousands of dollars, whereas the reprint can be had much cheaper. In case you're wondering, I went with the reprint.
Vampires is told from the point-of-view of "Garry" Garrington, a former soldier in the British army who finds himself one of the last remaining humans in England. The story is set at the time of the book's writing, with plenty of British references and attempts at dialect. Not much is known about the author Alan Hyder; some people assume he was from Jamaica.
At the beginning of the novel, Garry meets up with Bingen, an old army comrade who takes him over to his place of employment for old times sake, which happens to be brewery. Needless to say, they get plenty toasted on the proceeds of the vats, reminiscing about the good old days. When the brewery owner makes an unannounced appearance, the night watchman, also a former military man, locks them in an underground tunnel until the owner leaves. They sleep-off the drunk, unaware what's happen above them.
Both men wake the next morning to find themselves still locked in the tunnel, with a bat the size of a pit bull hanging onto the outside of the gate. While they try to figure out what to do, more large bats show up, all of whom are trying to get to Garry and his friend. And the bats don't leave.
When Garry and Bingen are finally able to leave the tunnel they discover the city of London has burned to the ground. The few bodies they can find are all drained of blood. It seems the bats are vampires and humans their prey. The bats also produce fire, but they themselves are immune to flames. They may not be all that large, but they have appeared overnight all over the earth in swarms. One giant vampire bat can be a nuisance, but swarms in the thousands, if not millions, are genocide.
The first part of the book consists of Garry and Bingen scouring the remains of London, trying to find any supplies or survivors. They eventually locate an 18-year-old-woman named Janet who was shielded from the holocaust under a load of asbestos tile on a barge . Here's where the real tension begins, since Garry is concerned for her safety, whereas Bingen has something else on his mind. Soon, appearances of the vampire bats are becoming less and less common, although the three survivors constantly scan the clouds in expectation of a swarm.
The giant vampire bats are a curiosity and the drive behind the novel. Hyder didn't do a lot of research into where they came from or how they function. We're told the bats have produced the heat which burned out civilization, but never do we see their incendiary arts in operation. They function in the daytime, although bats are nocturnal. The vampire bats can only be killed by decapitation, but a silver blade isn't needed. How they came to be in our world is not explained either, but Garry thinks they might have something to do with a comet which blazes in the evening sky.
What few other survivors the trio locate when they leave London don't offer much in the way of help. Examining the ruins of a village, Garry finds a mad British office worker, complete with bowler hat, on his way to work. After settling into the remains of a remote village, they encounter a drunken tramp who proves to be an antagonist wanting Janet for himself.
Hyder's descriptions of the world in ashes proved to be a glimpse of WW2. Although the book at times reads like an HG Wells imitation , the basic plot is quite unique. And this is why it is remembered years after the initial publication.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Echo of a Curse by R R Ryan (Midnight House edition)

Continuing with the KEW essential reading list, we now arrive at Echo of a Curse, a book I've been trying to read for the past 25 years. The R R Ryan novels on the list are some of the most difficult to find and this reprint wasn't cheap ( my limited edition copy is #6 out of 450 offered for sale). It's still no where near as expensive as the 1940 edition, if you can locate one. Oddly enough, this reprint was taken from an original edition which had belonged to KEW.
One of the more amusing things I've encountered in the introduction to this book (by DH Olson) is the assumption that RR Ryan was a woman. From what I understand, many people (most notably Karl Edward Wagner) had made this assumption as well. For years no one knew a thing about RR Ryan and the few people who had read the scarce books by this author assumed the identity to be female (because of the writing style). There's even a small artist's
rendition of the woman RR Ryan in the front.
All of which was proved WRONG when some literary sleuth went and checked the original publishing contracts. He found out RR Ryan was a MAN named Evelyn Bradley.
I like to imagine the day this information was revealed was greeted by the sound of thousands of feminist literary scholars shrieking because now they would have to revise an entire footnote (heh, heh).
The tone of the novel is slow and dark. For all the reputation of Ryan novels, I didn't find this one to be any where near the gut-punching cruelty in the average Charles Birkin story. It also assumes the reader is familiar with the King's English language of the day. All the "What, ho?" dialogue can wear on the Thames-impaired, but the book does deliver a good story.
The novel follows the lives of three people as they interact with each other over a period of twenty-five years. The first two of them are Terry Cliffe and his next-door neighbor Mary. Both have grown up together. Terry goes off to fight in WW1 where he meets Vincent Boarder, a strikingly handsome young man with a tendency to turn into a dangerous drunk. Vin goes home with Terry on leave and meets Mary. Vin woos and weds Mary.
Then the story gets nasty. Not only is Vin a dangerous drunk, but he's a mean one as well. Terry catches Vin trying to kill Mary one day and flattens him. But by now Mary is pregnant with Vin's child and divorce is out of the question. Vin sobers up and promises Terry to go on the wagon. Furthermore, Terry makes Vin promise to get a job and sleep in a separate room in the house. Vin agrees, but offers one strange reason for his sadistic behaviour: his father was an occultist who'd founded a religion on the undead and believed himself immortal.
Meanwhile a circus attraction known as THE UNEXPLICABLE has escaped and is killing innocent people right and left. Vin thanks it might be his father, but offers no reason why. The creature, which seems to be some kind of werewolf, gets close to Vin and Mary's house, but vanishes for good.
The second part of the book takes place over twenty years later. Terry has moved out of his house and in with Vin and Mary (to keep a better eye on Vin's behaviour). Vin has appeared to be the model father for their twin children (Faith and Don). But what neither Terry or Mary know is that Vin had paid a nurse to switch his real son at birth with another boy. It seems the real son was born with the features of a wild animal. This little substitution may have gone unnoticed, but Vin finds out the former nurse had a carnival background and returned to her former profession once she acquired Vin and Mary's real son. And the latest news is that her star attraction killed her, then fled the sideshow.
And now there is a very strange lodger at the house....
I have to give the novel bonus points for subtlety. It grew on me until I sat reading the final 100 pages straight-through. It's a work of quiet horror, where the real scares are the evil deeds which live on long after their commission.